What This Washington Post Columnist Got Wrong in Analysis of Conservatives
|Beware progressives like|
E.J. Dionne, Jr. offering
advise to conservatives!
In his new book, Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond, Dionne, a featured columnist of the always helpful Washington Post, argues that because elected conservatives broke their promises to voters to slash federal spending, spark an economic boom, put social issues at the top of the agenda, and restore tattered American prestige around the world, the American public has gone looking for political alternatives and found them in outspoken outliers.
The solution, suggests Dionne, is for conservatives to stop making promises they cannot keep—like shrinking government to its pre-New Deal size—and reclaim the “moderate” conservatism of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. That is the only sensible solution, says Dionne, because after nearly 80 years of the New Deal and its successors, the voters have come to accept and expect a government that gives them Social Security, health care, food stamps, housing allowances, and all the other accoutrements of the modern welfare state. To hew to a rigid Bill Buckley/Barry Goldwater ideology, he argues, is to consign your political movement to defeat and oblivion.
Dionne’s political diagnosis is accurate—conservative leaders in Washington have constantly let the voters down and hard—but his recommended cure would be disastrous for it would require conservatives to abandon the unquestioned political success of President Ronald Reagan and to a lesser extent that of Speaker Newt Gingrich. Let’s not forget the historic welfare reform of 1996, passed twice over President Bill Clinton’s veto.
The Dionne solution would require conservatives to turn away from ideas such as a market economy, individual freedom, the critical role of the family, and a foreign policy of peace through strength.
It would require conservatives to agree with progressives that the eight years of the Reagan presidency were a decade of greed rather than an unprecedented period of economic prosperity that benefitted all Americans, including African-Americans. It is a little-known fact that during the Eighties, black unemployment dropped 9 percentage points, black household income went up 84 percent, and the number of black-owned businesses increased 40 percent.
Dionne warns that the Republicans “must do more than offer a few tax credits and speak warmly about civil society.” It is obvious he has not read House Speaker Paul Ryan’s pro-growth agenda based on free enterprise and government by consent. Nor has he consulted the Heritage Foundation’s Solutions 2016, with its 111 recommendations on everything from Obamacare (repeal it), education (exit the Common Core standards and tests) and energy (reform the process for new nuclear reactor plants) to jobs (repeal the Davis-Bacon Act).
He accuses Reagan of legerdemain and rhetorical tricks to change the political debate without changing the structure of American government. But that is precisely the point. Reagan did not want to change our form of government, he wanted to restore our government to its original form in which “we the people” govern and the checks and balances carefully constructed by the Founders prevent any one branch of government from gaining too much power.
Contrary to Dionne’s advice, conservatives understand that the way to win the electoral debate is to take a strong forward position and stick with it just as Reagan did with his 1981 tax cuts that triggered 90 months of economic growth and his Strategic Defense Initiative which forced the Soviets to abandon the arms race and agree to end the cold war at the bargaining table and not on the battlefield.
Dionne is correct that President Eisenhower presided over a period of comparative peace and prosperity in the 1950s, but his “modern” Republicanism was rejected as “a dime store New Deal” by Barry Goldwater, a prime maker of the conservative movement. What Reagan said in his first inaugural address still applies: “In this crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”
Contrary to Dionne’s counsel, American conservatism does not need warmed-over Republicanism from the Fifties to get back on track but principled leadership committed to real health care solutions, meaningful spending cuts, tax reform that spurs economic growth and creates jobs, a strong national defense, energy independence, commonsense immigration reform, protection of human life from conception to natural death, and preservation of the traditional family.
That is a sure cure for conservatism’s ills and for an America anchored in family, faith, work and community.
Lee Edwards is the distinguished fellow in conservative thought at The Heritage Foundation's B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics. A leading historian of American conservatism, Edwards is the author or editor of 20 books, including biographies of Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater and Edwin Meese III as well as histories of The Heritage Foundation and the movement as a whole.
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